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Letter from California, Part 1

To Tad Friend, c/o The New Yorker

By Betsey Culp

Mr. Friend, you don’t know it, but a couple of weeks ago you worked a miracle. Northern California grew eerily still. Airplanes refused to take off. Taxis forgot to blow their horns. Only the rustle of pages broke the silence, as hundreds of thousands of people read “Going Places,” your profile of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. The local media rejoiced. We’d finally made it to the big time.

By now, we are used to seeing pictures of Newsom in national magazines. But a tour of the political setting in which he operates is less common. And so I, for one, gobbled up your words, eager to see what kind of picture you would paint of the city where I live.

Wherever you were, I don’t live there.

I admit I may be over-reacting, like a person who refuses to acknowledge a recording of her own voice. I may be quibbling over details, minor glitches demonstrating merely that the New Yorker’s famed fact-checkers don’t include anyone who lives in the Bay Area. (Just for the record, the Sunnydale housing project is in Sunnydale, not the Bayview. Yes, it’s the Bayview, not simply Bayview — it’s short for “the Bayview District.”)

But more likely, the hair on the back of my neck is quivering because of the questions that you didn’t ask, the details you didn’t feel important enough to include. Without them, our “ambitious young mayor” has “taken” a generic city, and his accomplishments — whether successes or failures — are meaningless. Newsom is considered “one of five stars of the Democratic Party,” with a serious shot at the White House. And the portrait of him that you present is recognizable. But readers of the New Yorker deserve more than a photo-op that could have been staged in any city in America. They deserve to know the place as well as the man.

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What do I mean? Let’s start with Newsom himself. Having just turned 37, he is, as you say, “the city’s youngest mayor in more than a century.” But he is also part of a revolution that began a few years ago in San Francisco, where one by one the members of the old guard toppled before a new generation. District Attorney Kamala Harris is 39. City Attorney Dennis Herrera is 41. Matt Gonzalez, president of the Board of Supervisors and Newsom’s rival in the mayor’s race, is 39; about half of the other supervisors are 40 or younger. It’s a young, energetic group, comfortable with novel approaches to persistent problems: when Newsom went to Bayview-Hunters Point to play basketball with police officers and young men from the neighborhood, he was joined by a frequent political opponent, Supervisor Chris Daly.

The decline of the old order began when the city returned to the election of supervisors by district in 2000 and culminated in the mayor’s race of 2003. Newsom is indeed a Democrat, a New Democrat as eager as Al Gore to “reinvent government.” Gonzalez is indeed a Green. But in the race for mayor, he was not “the Green Party candidate.” Local offices are nonpartisan in San Francisco and have been since 1911. During the early stages of the campaign, the rhetoric adhered to the city’s usual downtown business/neighborhood split. And the final vote could by no stretch of the imagination be called a Green referendum: Gonzalez received 119,329 votes to Newsom’s 133,546 in a city where registered Greens number about 14,000 (there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 247,000 Democrats).

The 2003 campaign energized the city, providing a template for this year’s presidential campaigns. It’s too bad you weren’t here then. What a story it would have made! Newsom was well organized, filing the papers for his candidacy in November 2002, right after voters approved his homeless measure Care Not Cash. The campaign kick-off was a mini-presidential convention, complete with signs and balloons. He particularly attracted a cadre of young men with well-scrubbed faces and starry eyes, many wearing the white shirts he favors.

Gonzalez, on the other hand, entered the race at the last minute, in August 2003, when it appeared that the other progressive candidates were losing momentum. With a firm jaw and longish straight hair parted in the middle, Gonzalez resembles John Lennon, and he has a similar effect on women. He put together truly a rainbow coalition of workers, many of them young people who had never voted before. In the controlled pandemonium that characterized his campaign headquarters, volunteers set out a continual supply of food, and the sounds of guitars and yoga practitioners provided a background for the phone banks. Newsom received donations of $3.8 million. Gonzalez raised about one-tenth of that amount, mainly through small contributions and creative fundraising. His art auctions and poetry readings foreshadowed the bake sales of MoveOn.org.

But somewhere along the way, the contest became partisan, with Mayor Willie Brown charging that Gonzalez was party building and nationally prominent Democrats arriving by the airplane-load to endorse their new standard-bearer. The campaign escalated into a feeding frenzy. In the end, Newsom’s lead in money, time, and organization won out.


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